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Skylight Inn

4618 Lee St., Ayden, NC - (252) 746-4113
Posted By Michael Stern on 2/16/2008 11:35:00 PM
Eastern North Carolina barbecue is sauceless. "Granddaddy always said, 'Sauce has absolutely nothing to do with making good barbecue,'" Samuel Jones is happy to tell you, referring to Pete Jones, who started the Skylight Inn back in 1947. This restaurant continues the family tradition of whole hog barbecue that began in the early 19th century and hasn't changed much at all. The ritual starts late in the afternoon, when the pitmaster burns oak wood logs until they turn to charcoal. The coals are pushed from the chimney into the adjoining pit, where halved hogs are arrayed on a grate above the heat. At midnight, then again at dawn, more coals are moved to the pit. There are no thermometers at the Skylight Inn. Doneness is checked by feel.

At 9am, the meat is fully tender and ready for the chopping block, which you can see behind the counter of the restaurant. Here stands James Howell with a cleaver in each hand. He starts hacking up the meat. Periodically, he puts the blades down and reaches back for a bottle of vinegar or Texas hot sauce to splash onto the pork and he shakes on salt and pepper straight from the carton. Nothing is measured out and there are no secret ingredients. When he's got a moist, steaming heap of five or six pounds that are the texture of coarse hash, he uses both cleavers to shovel it forward through the window onto an adjoining butcher block in the preparation area towards the counter. Here servers assemble trays and sandwiches. Sandwiches, which include cole slaw, are wrapped in wax paper. Trays full of meat are topped with a square of unrisen corn bread.

There is nothing else on the menu, but that's fine, because the perfection of this pork demands full attention. Its union with smoke creates a soft elegance that is abetted but not the least bit overwhelmed by the vinegar and hot sauce. What's most striking is its texture. Along with veal-soft shreds from the interior of the flesh are chewy strips from the outside as well as shockingly crunchy nuggets of skin. The cooked skin is insanely succulent and its firmness gives this meat edible drama that is lacking in barbecue made only from upscale hams or shoulders. This just might be the best barbecue there is.

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5 - Overall: Legendary - Worth driving from anyplace
Overall: Legendary - Worth driving from anyplace
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Pig perfect: cleaver-hacked whole-hog pork, including meltingly tender inside meat, chewy outside meat, and crunchy skin heaped into a bun with bright cole slaw. No condiments, no side dishes need be considered.
"Pig perfect: cleaver-hacked whole-hog pork, including meltingly tender inside meat, chewy outside meat, and crunchy skin heaped into a bun with bright cole slaw. No condiments, no side dishes need be considered."
Michael Stern





A large tray is not dimensionally huge, but its flavor and satisfaction are immeasurable. The cornbread, like Skylight Inn's pork, is basic. Unleavened and about a half-inch thick, it is rugged and leather-edged, a substantial chew that is a stunning complement to the juicy meat.
"A large tray is not dimensionally huge, but its flavor and satisfaction are immeasurable. The cornbread, like Skylight Inn's pork, is basic. Unleavened and about a half-inch thick, it is rugged and leather-edged, a substantial chew that is a stunning complement to the juicy meat. "
Michael Stern


There is no backround music in the dining room of the Skylight Inn. What you hear is the sound of James Howell's cleavers turning whole hog into definitive North Carolina Q.
"There is no backround music in the dining room of the Skylight Inn. What you hear is the sound of James Howell's cleavers turning whole hog into definitive North Carolina Q."
Michael Stern


We don't ever recall seeing Skylight Inn have dessert before.  We really liked this pineapple cake, with small pieces of the fruit in the icing.
"We don't ever recall seeing Skylight Inn have dessert before. We really liked this pineapple cake, with small pieces of the fruit in the icing."
Cliff Strutz


No cash registers here!  Change is made on the back counter.
"No cash registers here! Change is made on the back counter."
Cliff Strutz


Pete Jones, who opened the Skylight just after World War II, is an American barbecue legend. For decades he was omnipresent, at the counter from 8:30 in the morning through dinner hour. 'This wasn't just how he made a living,' grandson Samuel recalled, 'This was his life.'
"Pete Jones, who opened the Skylight just after World War II, is an American barbecue legend. For decades he was omnipresent, at the counter from 8:30 in the morning through dinner hour. 'This wasn't just how he made a living,' grandson Samuel recalled, 'This was his life.'"
Michael Stern


Pete Jones added a replica of the Capitol to the top of the Skylight Inn in 1988 when a journalist declared his place to be the Barbecue Capital of America.
"Pete Jones added a replica of the Capitol to the top of the Skylight Inn in 1988 when a journalist declared his place to be the Barbecue Capital of America."
Michael Stern



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